Resolved for 2022: Just keep trying stuff!

December 12th, 2021

“Go! Be warned, though, that I’m sending you out as lambs among wolves. Carry no wallet, no bag, and no sandals. Don’t even greet anyone along the way.”

Luke 10:3-4 CEB

I’m husband to Jill Beck, and we co-pastor a network of inherited and emerging congregations in north central Florida. Our New Year’s resolution for 2022… drum roll please… 

“Let’s just keep trying stuff!”

I’m not really joking. I know it’s not much of a vision statement. Who would put that on a banner and hang it in the sanctuary? But it is an imaginative principle that works for us.

Trying to predict the future is like “hocking a loogie” into a windstorm: there’s a good chance it will land back in your face. When inhaling hard-to-collect nasal mucus at the back of the throat, and then spitting it into the air, we may feel we have a good trajectory, but the contextual factors might surprise us. We can under or overestimate the wind, especially in the middle of a hurricane of change!

This uncertainty is hampering ministry amid the complex, overlapping, and ever shifting crises of COVID variants, gun violence, a rise in mental illness, systemic racism, political extremism, an overdose epidemic, and the disintegration of church as we know it. 

Welcome to the Wicked Domain

As congregations, we’ve lost the world we used to know. People who we loved and served have not returned to worship. Others prefer to participate in the life of the church digitally. Many of us are hanging on by a thread financially. Institutional metrics that once measured vitality are no longer relevant or accurate. Doubling down on what we used to do is exactly the wrong response. This is no time for meeting technical problems with technical solutions. 

We find ourselves in a wicked environment. I mean wicked not in the sense of being evil or morally wrong, but rather to describe a complex environment where success is not the most likely outcome.

Consider the difference between “kind learning environments” and “wicked learning environments.” In kind learning environments, patterns repeat consistently, feedback is accurate, and rapidly obtainable. In “wicked learning environments” there may not be repetitive patterns, the rules of the game are unclear, the status quo changes, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both.

Wicked learning environments thrust us into an adaptive challenge. It’s like people trained to play soccer, now trying to play water polo. It’s a different game, played in a different environment. Or as people who have lived in a jungle our whole lives, we now find ourselves learning to live in a desert. It’s a totally new ecosystem. While some of our knowledge and skills will transfer, much will not. We all operate from a particular “mental model” with deeply held internal images of how the world works, with images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting. But now we need some metanoia, a transformative change of heart and mind. We need to see the emerging context with the soft eyes of a learner. 


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In Luke 10, Jesus is sending teams of disciples into the wicked domain. May we hear afresh Jesus’s commission to “go on your way” into the dangerous new territory like lambs amidst wolves, leaving our mental, emotional, and rigid theological baggage behind. With Luke, let’s take a journey of faith, trust, and dependence on God into the unknown.

This is where pioneer ministers can be a gift.

The Gift of Pioneers in Times Like These 

In A Field Guide to Methodist Fresh Expressions, I explore an emerging phenomenon that started in the UK called “pioneer ministry.” Pioneers employ a different kind of thinking in complex scenarios. They are “positive deviants” in crisis situations. Positive Deviance refers to an approach to social change based on “deviants” whose uncommon but successful strategies enable them to find better solutions to a problem, despite facing similar challenges and having no extra resources or knowledge than their peers. 

Pioneers employ an effectual reasoning process.

Pioneers literally think differently. Effectual reasoning is typical among expert entrepreneurs. The word effectual is the inverse of causal. Causal rationality starts with a pre-determined goal and seeks to develop strategic steps toward meeting that goal. In the church world we are deeply formed in the way of causal logic. In causes we live, and move, and have our being. Effectual reasoning on the other hand doesn’t start with a specific goal. Rather, it begins with a given reality, and goals emerge contingently over time from the varied imagination and diverse aspirations of the entrepreneurs and the people they interact with.[1] Effectual rationality is like a foreign language to the institutional church.

  • Causal reasoning focuses on expected return; effectual reasoning emphasizes affordable loss. 
  • Causal reasoning factors competitive analyses; effectual reasoning is built upon strategic partnerships.
  • Causal reasoning urges the exploitation of pre-existing knowledge and prediction; effectual reasoning stresses the leveraging of contingencies.

Thus, by taking the “effects” and starting with who and what pioneers already have, they begin to create something new from the pieces. Through a series of relational interactions, as opportunities and strategic partnerships arise, multiple outcomes are possible. This kind of reasoning often employed by pioneers can fuel a journey of innovation even within fixed wicked domains.

Five Keys to Just Keep Trying Stuff

In the wicked domain, causal logic is deadly. Here are some practical principles that can help us “just keep trying stuff” in the coming year.

  1. Form teams that include outsiders: It’s time for the death of the heroic solo leader. If we’ve learned anything from the many high-profile debacles of celebrity pastors, and the cottage industry built up around their public lynching, it’s this: lone wolves become wolves. Jesus sends his disciples into the world as teams (Luke 10:1). Additionally, in the church world we stack the deck of our teams with our longest-term and most-dedicated church members. Sure, we need some of those experienced folk, but we also need to link up with the natives who are indigenous to the community. Jesus instructs us to locate the persons who “share God’s peace" (Luke 10:6), the outsiders who welcome us, and open the door of the community for us to come in.
  2. Short-range planning: As people deeply trained in causal logic, we love a good strategic plan. Unfortunately, a good long-range plan in a wicked domain is like hocking a loogie in a hurricane. We need to think short term, not a five-year plan but a five-month plan. Sustainability is not necessarily durability. You don’t have to build something that will last. Because of institutional overhead, that’s so contradictory to everything we are taught, but it was never true. For the first three hundred years of the church’s history, it produced no dedicated structures and had no professional clergy. It was a story of movement, a story of shared leadership, and sustainability through spread and periods of multiplication. The church flourished by cropping up and thriving for a season in Jerusalem and then Antioch, and ultimately to the ends of the earth, always moving out to the new edge (Acts 1:8). Our congregations are tired. Long-range plans that never materialize only add to the fatigue.  
  3. Care for the center, experiment on the edge: The key hinges on our ability to manage the tension between the center and the edge. We must meet the needs of long-time stakeholders, but if we do only that our church will end up on the closure list. Short-term, low-stakes experiments are the key to iterating our way into a new future. Everybody in the center does not have to be on board. We can gather a cohort of the willing to join us in a series of missional experiments that connect with people outside the congregation. Then we create feedback loops that channel the innovation back to the center: new relationships, celebrating the center, telling stories from the edge, lifting up the vision for how the two can give life to each other. For more on this see Deep and Wild.
  4. Start ugly: Expert entrepreneurs are often successful because they possess one distinct trait—confidence. They believe they can start something or try something in a different way and will succeed at it. You don’t need to have answers to all the questions. You don’t need to know every twist and turn of the journey ahead. You need to start with “what” and “who” you have. It doesn’t need to be perfect; you can rest assured it won’t be. But in the wicked domain, if you never start, you will never “go” anywhere. 

At one of our congregations, St Marks UMC in Ocala, FL, we shared the vision for a new dinner church as the pandemic raged on. Our faithful ones were exhausted. They initially resisted, “but who will…” “how will…” “when will…” I made a deal. I encouraged them to give me three months and let’s see where it goes. Within those first couple months, new folks started to join in. They volunteered to set up, prepare meals, wash dishes, and share Jesus stories. They took ownership and shared the load. Now, the Family Table Community Dinner has just as many people joining on a Wednesday night as we do in Sunday morning worship. We have essentially doubled the congregation and provided people in our community a way to serve.   

  1. Fail forward: News flash… you are going to fail! You can go ahead and prepare for that reality now. Some of things you start will die. You will create new expressions and no one will show up. People will get upset and leave no matter what you do. It’s okay. The only true failure is not learning from our failures. The story of Christianity is the story of human beings failing forward in a God of grace. 

Our main resolve, like many churches, is simply to survive the challenges of the coming year. That will be a success in our book. Perhaps these simple practices can help us unleash pioneers and potentially even thrive in the wicked domain. Let’s “go on our way” and trust God with the results. May 2022 be the year we reclaim the pioneer gift. May we all resolve to just keep trying stuff.

Here’s to the positive deviants: May you blaze new trails that we can follow to a flourishing new year. 

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